It seems as though the topic of divine gender is spawning a great deal of conversation and debate these days. Amidst all the opinions, the calm observations and the fiery rhetoric there’s been a great deal of labeling going on. The word ‘heretic’ has been thrust about with overzealous piety and an antagonistic agenda that merely seeks to scapegoat its targets by slinging its opinion across social media. There is certainly no neighborly love intrinsic within such an agenda. Perhaps worse still is the manner in which certain church leaders, with public pretention, say such things as, ‘I hope and pray you turn from your unbiblical path.’
And what is that ‘unbiblical’ path? What is this outlandish heresy? Well, to refer to God as female, of course. To attach a feminine pronoun to the divine name. And why is this so heretical? Is there truly no feminine imagery of God within scripture? Of course there is, and while I do not wish to reproduce an expose of the numerous passages that attest to such, here is a link to but one of many competent pieces that deal with these passages. A brief engagement with the texts in question will quickly dispose of any argument that assumes something ‘unbiblical’ about a feminine representation of God.
Now this is certainly not to say that God is female, and let me just make clear right now that this is not what I am suggesting. I am, likewise, most assuredly not saying that God is male. Indeed I do not think many of us, perhaps excluding the most fundamentalist sects of Christianity, would necessarily say that God is inherently male, exclusively possessing both X and Y chromosomes. Most of us would say something akin to, ‘God is genderless’, or ‘God is spirit’. And what is the divine pronoun to the majority of us anyway if not a simple means of expression, or a relational term? Most Christians, without necessarily wanting to engender God, still refer to God as ‘he’. We may be quick to say that this is merely allusive terminology but if we accept this as such why then, upon the same vein of thought, is it so heretical to talk of God as ‘she’. Millennia of its usage have ingrained the divine masculine pronoun into the minds of the masses. Despite the attestation of the few passages that refer to God in the feminine we should not kid ourselves as to the biblical origin of the primarily masculine view of God.
A great part of the reason for this masculine representation relates to the contextual cultural environ. The ancient world was steeped in heavy patriarchy. Indeed this is one of the few things we can say with surety about antiquity. The cultural milieu within which the bible was written was as layered in that patriarchy as any other. The Israelites worshipped a masculine god. A masculine god meant a powerful god, an assertive god, a warrior god and a god thus capable of issuing redemption through salvific acts. On the whole and in a world of competing cultural identities and of ethnic superiority a masculine god was essential to divine representation if the people group that deity represented was to have a contending voice at all.
To understand the prominence of masculinity within metaphor I invite you to come with me for a brief moment to some of the darkest places of patriarchal intention evident within the pages of scripture. If we were to turn our gaze toward the texts of Hosea 2, Ezekiel 16, 23 and Jeremiah 13:22-27, what might we find there? Something shocking, something wholly awful twisted into the poetical slew of prophecy. We may, if we wish, try to manipulate the metaphor in these passages to somehow soften the horrific descriptions unfolding within them. We may even try to justify or condone these acts and we will soon find ourselves scampering down rabbit holes that close in about us, that seek to entomb shallow theology. Here, in these passages, is a masculine God displaying the very worst patriarchy has to offer. Here is a God partaking in the public abuse of a female antagonist, condoning rape and dismemberment in the most graphic ways imaginable. And let’s be clear, all English translations do their best to soak these passages through with euphemistic language that does not reflect the Hebrew original. Now we might say that these texts are all about how angry God gets at the apostasy of ‘his’ people, and we would be right. That may be the very specific original intention that finds salvific redemption later on but as modern readers I think we should see these passages as witnessing to a broken androcentric social system which sought to condemn the greatest villainy upon the vein of a womanly metaphor. Surely any pastor preaching in such a fashion from a modern pulpit would experience a short-lived career.
So let me pose this scenario. A woman has grown up in the shadow of physical and sexual abuse exacted upon her by her own father. She comes to a place where she simply cannot reconcile with calling God ‘Father’ any longer. Should we as Christ-followers, as kingdom builders, as lovers of the ostracized, add to the complexity of her abuse by labeling her a ‘heretic’ for wanting to call God ‘Mother’? And how might we reconcile within ourselves holding such accusation in one hand and the above passages in the other? Do potential insecurities which are bound up within an opinion that finds a feminine portrayal of God personally emasculating begin to unravel at this point? The slippery slope such opinion fears is surely constructed of fabrication. For the only way a specifically feminine portrayal of God could become truly dangerous is if this specifically female God were to be used to advocate for the excessive abuse of men at the hands of a dominant ‘matriarchal’ society. What then shall we make of millennia of the exact opposite occurring within our religious tradition?
It is due time that we begin to broaden our use of gender identification for God if we are ever to put such atrocities behind us. If that merely means the ecclesial incorporation of a ‘biblical’ presentation of a God that embodies both female and male qualities then we are becoming more faithful in our walk. Having the grace to empathize with those who wish to identify God as mostly feminine because of serious abuse is surely a further step along the path. Struggling earnestly with open, searching hearts through passages that may be verifiably offensive to any female audience, and realizing how these may situate deep pain in addressing God as ‘he’, is something we all need to faithfully contend with. The Biblical witness is layered and the moment we think we have it figured out and flippantly condemn the sincere opinions of others is the moment we seriously stray from our faith walk.